The Base

Photo by Staff Sgt. Paul Labbe Photo by Staff Sgt. Paul Labbe

New Zealand military personnel have been secretly operating at a base in the Middle East where the air war against the Islamic State (Isis) is planned and launched.

The US-led bombing campaign is facing criticism for killing Iraqi civilians at a much higher rate than the coalition has acknowledged.

A Stuff investigation has confirmed New Zealand Defence Force teams have been stationed at the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase since at least early 2016.

Approached for comment, a Defence spokesperson said: “The New Zealand Defence Force has a small number of staff officers in Qatar at the Combined Air Operations Centre. These are deployed to contribute to security and support operations in the Middle East.”

Although located in Qatar, the CAOC is run by the US Air Force Central Command. Its website says it “commands and controls the broad spectrum of what air power brings to the fight: Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power.”

The CAOC’s mission involves operations in 20 countries including Afghanistan, but is heavily focused on the US-led anti-Isis coalition’s air campaign in Syria and Iraq. The high-tech facility is heavily-guarded and details of its operations are tightly controlled.

The centerpiece of the CAOC is a bunker-like building with rows of desks, computer stations and screens on one wall that plot the position of coalition aircraft taking off from the nearby runway for around-the-clock surveillance and bombing missions.

Stuff understands Defence’s work at the CAOC includes planning and intelligence. Asked whether those planning and intelligence roles were in any way related to air strikes, the Defence spokesperson said: “No. NZDF personnel do not have a mandate to engage in the targeting process.”

However, according to its website, “the CAOC relies upon the expertise of joint and Coalition teams” within five divisions “to facilitate superior airpower operations”: Strategy; Combat Plans; Combat Operations; Air Mobility; and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.

Australian Defence Force personnel, who work closely with New Zealand soldiers in Iraq, are directly involved at Al Udeid in providing intelligence for air strikes. Curiously, while Defence staff attended ANZAC Day commemorations with the Australians and other coalition personnel at Al Udeid in 2016 and 2017 and Remembrance and Veterans’ Day in November, the New Zealanders are not visible in official photos.

Even greater secrecy surrounds the role of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) in the anti-Isis campaign. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s spokesperson deflected questions about its role.

“The PM has no comment.”

A spokesperson for the GCSB said: “We don’t comment on where our staff may or may not be deployed due to national and personal security.”

Two senior defence sources have told Stuff that intelligence operations in the war against Isis are extremely sensitive because they undermine the narrative that New Zealand’s contribution is a “non-combat” mission.

The sources confirmed the involvement of New Zealand intelligence personnel in the anti-Isis campaign in Baghdad and other locations but were reluctant to provide details. One said: “It’s fair to say they wouldn’t be there to sweep the floors.”

Strategic analyst and former Pentagon official Dr Paul Buchanan said it was hard to see how the National or Labour-led governments could define a New Zealand planning or intelligence role as “non-combat”.

“In reality, the intelligence and planning role is as central to the kill chain as that of the pilots.”

Then-Prime Minister John Key was asked on TV3’s The Nation in September 2016 whether he could rule out New Zealand soldiers helping target air strikes through intelligence, “be it out in the field or somewhere in the world on a computer”. He replied: “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can.”

Questioned whether New Zealand spies were helping with air strikes Key said that “our intelligence guys do work, not in Syria, but they do work in Iraq. But by definition, these things again are always very broad. Because people are in lots of different locations.”

Asked later in the interview: “Does our intelligence get used for air strikes, yes or no?”, Key replied: “Well, I’m pretty sure the answer to that’s no, but again, I don’t sit there and see, you know, what goes through and how it all works.”

While Stuff has confirmed the presence of Defence Force staff at Al Udeid from 2016, it is possible they were first sent in 2015 when Key told Parliament: “The Government has decided to deploy a non-combat training mission to Iraq to contribute to the international fight [against Isis]."

He added that as well as Defence trainers being sent to Camp Taji in Iraq “there will be others such as staff officers deploying in coalition headquarters and support facilities in the region.”

The initial deployment of Defence personnel was opposed by Labour, NZ First and the Greens. It was supposed to be limited to two years but in June 2016 was extended until this November. The coalition has succeeded in driving back Isis but the war has been marred by human rights abuses including torture and extra-judicial executions by Iraqi security forces.

Recent reports of heavy civilian casualties in the US-led air campaign may also raise hard questions for the Labour-led government as it considers whether to further extend the deployment.

Journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal spent 18 months researching the air war for a New York Times investigation, visiting nearly 150 coalition airstrikes in Northern Iraq between April 2016 and June 2017.

They found that “one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death – a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition” and “at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history.”

The reporters said the coalition had consistently failed to properly investigate claims of civilian casualties or keep records to allow such claims to be checked. “While some of the civilian deaths…were a result of proximity to a legitimate Isis target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants.”

Told by Stuff about the Defence Force's role, Gopal questioned why it would be kept secret. “If New Zealand purports to uphold certain values, like the protection of civilians, the only way that people can know if they are doing that is if they know what New Zealand is doing in this conflict.”

The US-led coalition has consistently said it conducts its air strikes with surgical precision and that great care is taken to avoid civilian casualties. However, Gopal said there was “a massive gap between what the coalition and its constituent governments say they’re doing in the war against Isis and what’s actually happening on the ground.

“That gap is not just important for moral and ethical reasons – because a lot of innocent civilians are dying – but also for strategic reasons, because you can’t actually win a war when you’re leveling whole cities and destroying families.”

He said while Isis might eventually be defeated, “the grievances, the anger and the resentment that the anti-Isis campaign has inculcated among Iraqis and Syrians is going to fester, and I can see circumstances under which a new group will emerge. And then we will be having the same conversations 10 or 15 years down the line.”